10 Days At Ground Zero

The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...


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The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event, not every detail could be fully recalled or determined. There are also periods of time and activities that I simply don’t remember.)

DAY 1. Sept. 11, 2001 – a day etched in our minds and in our history. A day that undoubtedly has changed the way we view our lives and the freedom which we have taken for granted over so many years. A day which shattered our self-confidence and shook our sense of security to its very foundation. We’d never experienced a major attack on the U.S. mainland. Maybe because we are the mightiest country on earth, we felt we never would. We always felt that our daily routine would never be compromised. We had control over our lives and felt secure in that thought. It was normalcy. Until Sept. 11. Then, whether we have accepted it or not yet, our country, our lives and our sense of normalcy were changed forever.

I start my day preparing to fly to New York on a business trip. I always fly USAir because it has non-stop service to LaGuardia. I usually arrive at LaGuardia around 7:30 A.M. and make it into the city by 8:30. Any other trip, I would have arrived at my hotel 15 minutes before the first plane attacked and no doubt would have been downtown within 30 minutes, just after the second strike. This trip, however, is different.

Even after buying a ticket on USAir, I change my plans on Sunday. Instead, I book a flight on United through Washington Dulles Airport and come in a day earlier than originally planned, on Tuesday, Sept. 11. Having to now connect, my new itinerary puts me into New York three hours later than usual, so I schedule no meetings until the afternoon and decide to just reuse the USAir ticket on a future trip. Just a feeling, something that can’t be explained.

After watching Monday Night Football, I switch over to the Weather Channel and notice a major storm front coming through that night, all the way up the Eastern Seaboard. It’s supposed to push off the coast by early morning and I feel comfortable about flying the following day. I realize later on, that if the storm had stalled, the attack would not have happened that day, with poor visibility being a big issue.

I drive to the airport and take off on time, arriving in Dulles right on schedule. Yet another uneventful flight, just the way I like them. I walk into the terminal to check the monitor for my connecting gate. It is around 9 o’clock. The screen reads “Cancelled” for my flight to New York, and for the flight after that to New York. Every other destination shows “On Time,” so I think nothing of it, it’s just another quirky travel day.

At the counter I ask what the story is before booking a new flight. The gate agent says, “Two planes hit the towers.” She has a very distraught look on her face. My first thought is that an aviation accident has occurred at LaGuardia. Two planes must have collided over the airport and fell on the control tower. That’s why all the other flights weren’t affected. But I could have sworn she said “towers” – plural. I hesitate, then ask her to clarify, and she tells me that two airplanes flew into the World Trade Center.

I stand there in shock for about five seconds while the magnitude of her statement sinks in. Terrorism. I then ask where my bags will go. I know two things at that moment: there won’t be any more outbound flights, regardless of what the monitor says, and I need to get to New York right now. I dash to baggage claim and find my carousel, while talking to the office on my cell phone. I instruct them to buy me a train ticket from Washington, D.C. to New York. Oddly enough, they succeed.

After I hang up, it suddenly occurs to me that all train stations, as well as airports, are going to be shut down very soon because it is obvious we are under attack by terrorists. I then decide that I am going to have to drive up there, if I can even approach the city by car. Given that Manhattan is an island, it is also a given that all bridges and tunnels into the city are going to be shut down, as they are prime targets.

The airport public-address system announces that the airport is now officially closed and passengers are to leave all terminals immediately. That’s not a surprise, but I still need my bags. I dash outside to be confronted with a line of about 200 people waiting for cabs. I “convince” the curb attendant to immediately set aside a cab that can take me all the way to New York. He, of course, thinks I’m nuts – I want to go to a city under terrorist attack.

I go back inside and note that the carousel is moving, with my flight number displayed overhead. I wait about three minutes for my bags, then say to heck with it and head back outside. As I leave the terminal, a TV monitor catches my eye. I stop in mid-stride and stare at it, not believing what I am seeing. The twin towers are burning. They look like two birthday candles right after the flames are blown out. Heavy, black smoke is pouring from the tops of both buildings. For a few moments, I can’t take my eyes off the screen, I’m transfixed. It’s as if my mind is failing to accept or absorb what I’ve already been told. An unimaginable tragedy is unfolding right there on live, national TV. It then hits me that those planes were not small propeller planes, as I had thought. Looking at the damage and number of fire floors, I know that they had to be jetliners – with a lot of fuel on board. Hijacked, no doubt.

I thought hijacking was a thing of the past in this country. Everyone on the planes and at points of impact within the towers are surely dead. The death toll must be catastrophic and I am stunned by it. This has to be a bad dream. I snap out of my momentary trance, rush out to the curb and hop in the cab, knowing that it is going to be a very long and challenging ride, with heavy traffic. I urge the driver to go as fast as possible, that I’ll take care of talking to the police if we get pulled over. It will take about five hours to get there.

Clearing the airport, I call the office and am told that the Pentagon has also just been hit. I turn to look back over my shoulder and see a huge column of smoke barely 10 or 15 miles away. God, I’m in a city under attack, trying to get to another city under attack.

I wonder if what I am doing makes sense. Should I head to New York or turn around and head toward the Pentagon? What will I do when, or even if, I reach either site? Can anything I do make a difference? Even though New York is much farther away, I feel there is where the greatest tragedy lies, where the most help is needed, and where our pre-plans and knowledge can do the most good. Although we have no data on the World Trade Center, we do have plans for buildings that surround the complex and are likely to be affected as well, by falling debris.

We continue on in haste to New York. I feel confident that if I can just get there, I should be able to offer enough assistance to the FDNY to at least make my presence justifiable. I decide to call Bob Drennen, a close friend and retired battalion chief from Philadelphia. We talk briefly about the two disasters and then he tells me the towers have fallen. I almost drop the cell phone. It hits me like a sledge hammer. Two 110-story buildings are no longer standing. We discuss the possible death toll and agree it is high. We realize there has to be a huge loss of firefighters, but talk of it only for a few seconds. It is a topic that neither of us wants to contemplate.

I wonder to myself how many of them I knew, then he tells me that another Philadelphia chief, Tom Garrity, is in New York, working on an assignment for us. The knot in my stomach tightens. The office didn’t even mention it to me. Knowing Tom, he’s somewhere in the thick of things, if he’s even alive. I’ve seen both guys on the job, riding with them years ago when I visited their city on business. They are extremely talented, aggressive and tough as nails under pressure. Bob suggests that the office try to reach Tom, to verify he’s OK, then notify his fiance of his status.

Before we hang-up, though, I throw out the idea of biological/chemical weapons being on the planes in checked baggage. Bob agrees it is a possibility – if these terrorists are crazy enough to fly airliners into the World Trade Center, it shouldn’t be unthinkable that NBC warfare may be involved. Their goal is to kill a very large number of people.

I decide to place a call directly into the New York City emergency dispatch center and suggest they relay a message to the command post of the additional threat. They agree it has merit and promise to do so. Then, I have the office check on Tom’s status and if he’s still alive, to contact me when I get to the city. He would be more valuable to the command post than I would be, given his experience in commanding high-rise fires.

Hours pass agonizingly slow as we make our way toward New York City. Approaching from New Jersey, I see a faint, dark haze floating across the horizon toward the south. We are still an hour and maybe 50 miles away. I tell the cabbie that the barely noticeable haze is smoke from a very big fire. He glances at me in the mirror with a worried look on his face. He is of Middle Eastern descent, and says with a great sense of pride that he will do whatever it takes to help me and serve his country in this time of need.

As we get near the city, the slight haze becomes a monstrous plume of brown and black smoke, more smoke than I’ve ever seen. It appears to me as a huge, F5 tornado turned sideways. It stands in vivid contrast against a cloudless, powder-blue sky. I wonder how such a terrible catastrophe can occur on such a perfect day.

I see signs saying “New Jersey Turnpike closed – All roads to New York closed.” I ask the driver to stop at a police car guarding the highway barrier where traffic is being funneled off onto secondary roads. I tell the officer that I must get to the site; the firefighters need all the help they can get. “Go,” he says, and moves his car to let us through. We fly along, the only vehicle on the road. It seems strange, having the New Jersey Turnpike all to ourselves on a weekday.

We pass through several more checkpoints. I must repeatedly explain my intentions, but certainly I understand why. We are under attack. These guys are protecting New York from afar, making sure no one gets through without a very good reason. Somehow, I get all the way to the Port Authority Police Department command post near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. I let my cab driver go, and he ends up with the biggest fare of his life – $600.

I meet the chief engineer from the World Trade Center, run by the Port Authority and leased for $3.5 billion to a private real estate firm only three weeks before the disaster. It is obvious by his disheveled look that he has been at the site. I immediately ask if Alan Reiss, the director of the World Trade Center and a friend whom I have come to know and admire over the past few years, is safe. His office is on the 88th floor of Tower 1. I am told he was in the building, but got out alive. The engineer jots down two phone numbers, including Alan’s home number for me to get in touch with him.

He’s rattled, his hands shake uncontrollably. As he finishes writing the numbers, I look over toward New York City and at the horrendous column of smoke emanating from what quickly becomes known as “Ground Zero.” It obscures all of lower Manhattan. Although I know I’m going to do whatever it takes to get over there, I wonder if that really is a good thing. I know what awaits me and feel a brief moment of uncertainty as to whether I really need to see and experience it all, just to try and pitch in. I’m only one person and I know that doesn’t count for much. I accept the fact that I’ll probably never be the same if I go, but I go anyway.

I ask for help in getting across the river and the Port Authority officials graciously agree to run me through the tunnel, even though it is officially closed. The driver lets me off at a security checkpoint on the other side and I hail a cab to reach my hotel. Although my bags are back at Dulles, I have to get rid of my briefcase and camera. I don’t usually travel with a camera, but brought one on this trip to add a few interior shots of high-rise building features to my PowerPoint presentation on the topic. It ends up being very valuable today.

I drop my things off and dash over to a nearby police precinct to get a ride to the site. I recall thinking that there is probably only one fire department in the world that can handle an incident this big and it is the FDNY. I’m downtown in 15 minutes. If hell exists, then this must be it. I experience sights, smells and sounds that can’t be properly conveyed to people who weren’t there. It’s just impossible to put things into context. Unimaginable. Unexplainable. Unbelievable. I look around and realize that things will never be the same for me or any other American. This is the largest attack in history on the U.S. I assume the loss of life must be staggering.

I know there are a lot of dead and injured firefighters. Admittedly, that thought disturbs me more than anything else. The smoke and dust is so thick I can barely breathe. Coughing becomes the routine for the day. It is snowing, but it is not snow. A blizzard of white ash rains down from every angle. You can’t get away from it, or the smoke. It has an acidic, harsh taste and leaves a burning sensation in my eyes and throat.

It is eerily quiet. None of the typical New York noises – the constant blasting of horns, bumper-to-bumper traffic, people crammed onto sidewalks, nudging into one another, yakking away on cell phones. A city where everyone is almost nose to nose, yet at the same time in their own little world. Everything is so hauntingly still, so silent. Death marches nearby. You can feel it. Oddly, I find it reminiscent of the movie “The Day After,” except this is “the day of.” This is what nuclear winter must be like.

I see the smoke briefly change from dense black and brown to red and orange, boiling up from the site. I know this is not a good place to be. I pause and think of how ludicrous it is to be standing here in dress clothes. I figure everything that is bad must be in this smoke I’m sucking in, but no one, not even the firefighters who pass by, are protecting themselves. Plenty of tanks on backs, yet nobody with a mask on. It’s not feasible to wear one and everyone knows it. It would be too cumbersome and refilling air cylinders would be almost impossible. They’ve just got to deal with it and move on with the many daunting tasks at hand. Streets that I’ve walked down many times are unrecognizable. Several times, I stop, look around and have no idea where I am. The streets all look the same, gray/white and ashen.

I remember how I used to look to the twin towers when I needed to get my bearings downtown. They weren’t just landmarks; they were beacons, day and night. Pillars of strength. Monuments to our economic prosperity and might. Even though I know they’re gone, I still find myself instinctively looking for them, somehow hoping they will appear through the smoke and assure me that everything is OK – “We’re over here in case you’re lost.”

I recall the 1993 bombing. It was a cold, blustery winter day in New York, with light snow flurries falling from a dark, brooding sky. It is eerily similar to today, except the “snow” that is falling is dust and small shreds of paper from the towers themselves, not the warm, blue sky above. I remember having lunch that day with the property manager of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, another 100-plus-story building we had just finished pre-planning. We sat in the restaurant with his boss on Michigan Avenue when Dean Johnson’s phone rang with the news that the World Trade Center had just been bombed. We raced back to his building just in time to face reporters wanting to know what their level of preparedness was. I helped with the media, then left to do four TV and two newspaper interviews before the day was through. There I was in Chicago and I desperately wanted to be in New York, to offer help, instead of talking to a camera.

Then a call came into our home office from the Port Authority, asking if I could come to the city as soon as possible. Since it was a Friday and things didn’t look all that bad, I told them I’d be up there Monday morning after returning home and repacking over the weekend. I was at the complex by 9:30 A.M. Monday and was given the grand tour of the crater, two levels below grade. There was a very low fatality count, but thousands were injured. The devastation was breathtaking. I stood next to a huge hole several floors deep, pipes and wires hanging everywhere. There were still the shells nearby of several gutted automobiles. It was obvious that this was a major explosion.

As I stood there kicking myself for not bringing a camera, I couldn’t help but think what might have happened if the bomb had gone off directly below Tower 1, instead of between the tower and the hotel. The thought of one of the towers toppling was mind-boggling, I will admit, yet it was the first time the possibility had entered my mind. I remember being interviewed by several national publications. They told me that all the architectural, structural and engineering experts they talked to agreed that the towers could not be brought down by a bomb. I clearly recall them all saying that not even a plane flying into one of the towers could bring it down. They had said they built the buildings with that scenario in mind. I remember being the lone voice adamantly disagreeing with that opinion, feeling that regardless as to whether a plane could or could not knock a tower over on impact, the release and ignition of the jet fuel would be enough to compromise the structural integrity of the tower.

To me, common sense dictated that the fuel-fed fire would easily exceed 2,000 degrees. Fireproofing would be scraped off. Sprinklers would be destroyed. With the failure temperature of steel being around 1,100 degrees and with the compressive load being generated on the fire floors from the remaining stories above, the collapse of the tower would be a given. Along with everyone else, I figured that an aviation accident, much less a terrorist attack, of that magnitude was unthinkable. The collapse of even one of the massive towers was a thought that I could not easily entertain. Yet, standing there with a commanding view of the crater that February day over eight years earlier made me wonder whether we take a threat of that nature seriously enough. It is evident that someone has an agenda against us, but were they really attempting to bring one or both of the buildings down? Were they really trying to kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians and strike a blow at the very heart of America and all that we believe in?

I snap back to this warm September day, not 100 feet from where the 1993 bomb detonated. Did they, in fact, succeed in bringing them down this time? It just can’t be true, can it? The reality of it all grips me when the wind shifts again, the smoke momentarily clears and I find myself standing motionless on Liberty Street, staring in disbelief at the spot where the two towers once stood. The towers ARE gone. It’s almost too much for my mind to accept. I find myself wishing this was some kind of terrible dream, yet I know it’s all too real. I glance down to the corner of West and Liberty and see an old 30-story building heavily involved in fire, nearly from top to bottom. I look over my shoulder at 1 Liberty Plaza. A friend of mine, Larry Graham, works in that building. He oversees it and all the other assets in the U.S. for one of the largest real estate companies in North America. His office is on the sixth floor, facing the Trade Center. My stomach twists as I wonder if he made it out alive. His building must be missing a hundred windows, but you can tell it is structurally sound. It was the original headquarters of U.S. Steel and it is an incredibly sturdy 53-story tower. There is no way to tell who’s alive and who’s not at this point. I hope he was in midtown this morning and he’s all right, along with Nancy, his warm and caring assistant.

Suddenly, to my right, something odd catches my attention through the dense smoke. It looks like pieces of steel sticking out the side of the Bankers Trust Building at 130 Liberty St. I walk closer and stare upward. As if a giant cat has slashed the front of the building with its claw, a huge gaping hole about 20 feet across exists from around the 25th floor down to about the 10th floor. The curtain wall, floor slabs, everything – gone. Just open space where offices once were and several large steel columns protruding out of the middle of the gash. I knew the columns didn’t belong to the building. One of the towers must have fallen over and struck it, I thought. It was an imposing sight.

I work my way over to the World Financial Center and see hundreds of windows missing, the beautiful Winter Garden badly damaged, the facades of skyscrapers scoured. One 50-story building apparently also was struck by one of the falling twin towers. Several large steel columns jut out from the corner offices up around the 20th floor. It confirms my belief that the towers did not collapse straight down into one large debris pile.

I turn my attention to where the World Trade Center once stood. The bizarre scene is displayed before me. All that is left is a large mass of burning, smoking debris, yet surprisingly, only a few stories tall. I’m guessing 50 feet high or so. This is where two 110-story buildings were just a few short hours ago? The thought of countless visits to the complex – the mall, meetings, breakfasts and lunches with Alan Reiss. Alan is the exact opposite of what you may perceive a man in his position to be. You may think someone who is in charge of all day-to-day operations of the world’s largest office complex and responsible for the lives of over 100,000 people a day is unapproachable, self-centered, aloof. No, Alan is one of the kindest, respectful, most warmhearted, easygoing people I know. That’s why I’ve always gravitated toward folks like him and Larry. They’re just simply “good people,” which makes me wonder why anyone would want to kill them and so many more innocent people. It just doesn’t make sense.

As I stand there staring intently straight through the smoky air toward where the imposing twin towers once soared, my mind momentarily wanders back to a breakfast Alan and I had one day last year. He surprised me by taking me up to the “Windows on the World” restaurant at the top of Tower 1. He thought I might like the view while we ate. Unfortunately, when we were up there, low-lying clouds moved in below us, obscuring our view of the busy city below. It didn’t matter, though, as we had a great time talking up a storm anyway. I could have sat there for hours listening to Alan tell me of the latest adventures at the complex. This man’s pretty much seen it all, yet I know he wasn’t prepared for what happened today, Sept. 11. No one could be. None of the people who came to work here today envisioned what was going to occur as they poured their first cups of hot coffee and opened their morning e-mails. Looking out over the city for a few moments before beginning the day from their offices high up in two of the tallest buildings in the world. Minutes later, they’re diving out that very same window to certain death below, some hand-in-hand with co-workers. Plenty of time to ponder the horror of their actions on the way down from 1,000 feet up.

As I stare up into the sky to where the restaurant once was, I consider that if I had taken my regular flight and dined with Alan this morning up on the 107th floor, what might I have done if I were in the position as those people? Staring at certain death, with no way out, up or down … elevators and stairwells destroyed “ fire everywhere. I have difficulty contemplating the thought, and what my decision might be. After all, I’m a survivor by nature. My training and experience as a former firefighter would tell me to not give up, to never give in to fire, to find a way out and to lead others to safety.

But what if there is no way out and you feel the building shifting and you know there is no chance of the fire department extinguishing this much fire this high up. The fire is working its way toward you and time is running out. You will not accept the fate of burning to death; no firefighter would. You are confronted with a sense of finality. The decision settling into my mind disturbs me, yet I realize it is the logical and correct one.

The fleeting thought quickly dissolves and I am still standing fixated on the pile of rubble where the towers used to be – and the innocent people who once occupied them. It is hard to fathom what it must have been like, for the civilians and firefighters alike, before and just after the buildings crashed down around them. I do not wish to stare anymore at where thousands died only hours ago. I look around, expecting to see tons of glass and furniture everywhere, but find none. How did 220 floors of furnishings disappear? Was it vaporized by the weight of the collapsing structures? I discover later that I’m not the first person to note this strange phenomena.

I continue circling the site, “sizing up” the scope of the disaster. It is beyond comprehension. Two buildings disappear, many more are badly damaged and it suddenly occurs to me that we are instantly at war. A war with an unseen enemy and possibly with no end. Things are clearly going to get ugly between us and them and this may not be the worst of it. That thought alone disturbs me. This isn’t the way I envisioned the first day of my business trip turning out.

In between sticking my head into lobbies and checking for people as I continue making my way around the area, I wonder if all the surrounding buildings have been searched yet. I know a lot of firefighters are missing and I’m curious if enough personnel exist to accomplish all that has to be done – search and rescue on the debris pile, searching exposures, suppressing fires in nearby buildings and at the collapse zone, in addition to countless car fires. How are stations being backfilled? How is the city responding to other emergencies? How do you deal with something this big? The drain on resources must be tremendous. They probably need all the help they can get.

I am a civilian trying to be a firefighter again, trying to do what feels natural and instinctive from years of performing the same basic functions. This time, however, I am on my own and not really sure what I can do to make a difference. I’ve never felt so insignificant. I come across dazed firefighters coated with dust, ask which buildings have been searched and am told, “I don’t know.” I ask where the command post is and am told there are several. I am also told that the initial command post was wiped out, along with all the chiefs. I look into face after face after face and see the same expression. Some call it shock. I refer to it as the “million-mile stare.” I could relate a bit, as I would do something productive for a minute or two, then stop and completely lose my train of thought. I can’t figure out what I need to do next and what might have already been done, or if I even belong here. I feel naked without any gear. I honestly admit there are a few moments when I feel completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. Sometimes, the human mind shuts down momentarily, due to input overload. This is on a scale like nothing I’ve ever seen. It just seems too much to be real. Everyone is feeling it, except the chiefs. At least they didn’t show it.

I round a corner northeast of the site and find a deputy chief surrounded by about 50 firefighters. I don’t recognize him, figuring he must be from another borough of the city. His gear and face are covered in soot and ash. It continues to rain down on everyone. The men need a leader and they need assignments in this crisis. This is when true leaders lead. He stands there like a rock and just starts ripping off orders to his men. I’ve never seen such effective and decisive leadership under intense pressure, and that includes 20 years in the fire service, paid and volunteer.

I stand there in awe and watch this chief command his troops in a way that re-instills confidence and assurance that the worst is over, but a great deal of work must still be done. And they are going to do it. I approach and speak with him briefly, advising that most of the buildings surrounding the Trade Center have pre-plans in them for fire department use.

I also bring up the issue of the possible presence of biological/chemical weapons in checked bags in the planes. He agrees the threat exists, but he has enough to deal with for the moment. I wish him and his men to be safe, deciding to work my way around the scene some more. We shake hands and I dissolve back into the crowd.

So much activity is going on around me. I try and determine if other nearby buildings have been searched and cleared, looking for walking wounded to herd toward nearby medical facilities. The smoke is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s so thick, so chokingly thick. I know by the smell that some nasty stuff is burning. My eyes are burning like hell and I cough uncontrollably. I look around me in disbelief. Structures are free burning. High-rise buildings with fire blowing out window after window. This isn’t New York, it’s a war zone.

I walk by fire trucks crushed beyond recognition, cars with all the glass missing, paint stripped from the metal bodies, rims with tires burned off. I see one car in the middle of the street with the hood up and the engine missing. Gone. Gone where? Storefronts are blown in. Fire escapes 20 stories high are piled with material from the towers. The streets are submerged in trash, coated with dust, a foot or more thick in some places. When the wind shifts again and the smoke momentarily clears, there they are – cars and trucks as far as I can see, completely demolished. All the glass is blown out, but there is no glass in the street. I look inside a few cars and don’t see any glass there either. Where’s the glass? Other things I see won’t be discussed. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions. I have a hard time absorbing it all. There’s so much destruction everywhere. The scene is surreal.

I work my way around the area, helping out wherever I can, until I come across the forward fire department command post at Broadway, Park Row and Vesey Street. Chief Frank Fellini is commanding the northeast sector of the incident; we haven’t met before. He exhibits courage under fire, even in the face of incredible danger – adjacent buildings on the verge of collapse, fire, smoke and mayhem everywhere – and, I’m sure, the thought that many firefighters are missing in the streets and in the rubble. Co-workers. Friends. Too many to count. It has to be eating at him, I think. He is unwavering. There is an almost insurmountable task facing him. The city and its fire department, indeed, even the nation, have been brought to their knees. Yet, this chief will ensure that his men will meet the challenge, as they always have, as they always will. They will restore order amid all this chaos. Control and reason will be wrested from insanity.

When I first approach him, after a brief introduction, my first words are, “Chief, what are we looking at, about 20,000 (as in fatalities)?” He stares at the site briefly, then looks at me eye to eye and replies with a hollow resonance, “Yeah, about 20,000.” At that moment, we are both shocked by what was just said. Almost too afraid to ask, I inquire, “How many firefighters are missing?” “Around 250 men,” he says. I think to myself, what is the previous high, 14 out in Colorado?

Numbness overcomes me and for a few seconds I can’t think of anything to say. I then introduce myself to Chief Fellini’s operations chief, Tom Haring, and we talk briefly about matters at hand. Knowing 7 World Trade Center is on the verge of collapse, he has already established a collapse zone and has removed all personnel from harm’s away. The chief is poised and seems to be getting a good handle on things. As he talks to me with a quiet confidence, the radio crackles with one transmission after another.

He addresses each one quickly and effectively. We discuss the hazardous materials aspects of the incident as we each realize this is not just a terrorist attack and resultant collapse of two tall buildings. There was a significant amount of toxic substances in the towers and it is a given that a fair amount of them had to be released by the compression of the buildings coming down, as well as the fire and smoke now spewing from the rubble. I offer to put together a list of what I believe may be involved for his review. He agrees, as this is a growing concern in his mind, in addition to everything else he is dealing with. Search and rescue is still the obvious priority. Chief Fellini leaves to go talk with other chiefs at the scene.

I stop for a moment and start running people that I have come to know in the FDNY through my head, hoping they’re not among the missing. I know that the downtown area is under the command of Division Chief Pete Hayden and he would be working this week, as I just talked to him yesterday. We would be meeting on Friday. Not now. I just hope we can reschedule, meaning that he is alive. He is a fine man and an excellent fire chief, as good as they come. I hope he’s OK.

One of the guys at the command post mentions to me that one aircraft still has not been accounted for and they are concerned that we could take another hit. It’s enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, believe me. At that point, we couldn’t sustain another strike. It turns out that the plane that went down outside Pittsburgh is the one that’s missing and the only one that didn’t succeed in hitting a key target. It had been accounted for hours earlier.

Within minutes, I hear a jet overhead. I don’t worry for a second, though. Even before I look up, I note the unmistakable sound of a fighter plane and relief washes over me as I know that the skies above us are now safe and secure. The boys have our backs. It is odd, though, listening to the roar of fighter jets circling Manhattan, instead of the familiar sound of airliners approaching and departing one of the three major airports nearby. I discover later that the Navy is positioning an aircraft carrier off the coast to protect the city’s airspace.

It’s about 5 o’clock. After a little more conversation, I leave the pre-plan for World Financial Center Tower A with the chief’s aid and disappear to find water, as we are all getting dehydrated. It is in the upper 70s, even warmer standing on the pavement. As I wander around, I hear a loud roar. A large dust cloud is heading in my direction. Ducking into a store entrance, the cloud passes fairly quickly as the wind seems to pick up. I am told it was 7 World Trade Center coming down, a 47-story building, two million square feet. Working my way back to the site, I see that the latest “victim” lying on its side, blocking the street and burning intensely. Two nearby buildings on opposite sides were struck by collapsing walls. I pause for a moment, taking it all in. I find the command post again and approach Chief Haring to let him know I’m still working on some things and ask if there is anything else I can do to help. He states that he’s all right for the time being, just missing one more building. It occurs to me that he’s probably been standing there in the middle of the street, with his aide and status board, for hours. I tell him that I’m going to set up a command post for him. He looks at me quizzically and breaks into a slight grin as I take off to the north. I work my way back to the flow of traffic coming in on West Street and corral two volunteer fire department pickup trucks from New Jersey. Great guys and all too eager to help. We head back to my hotel. The hotel staff kindly offers any resources we require, so we take several tables and about two dozen chairs, along with a stack of pads and pens. This should help the chief and his officers keep track of everything. I dash upstairs to grab my camera, but forget my ID, which is dumb. It makes things much more difficult for me later, moving back and forth through the checkpoints until badges can be made.

All I’m thinking about while in my room is getting that camera and trying to capture some of the devastation at the site. The scene needs to be captured and pictures are worth a thousand words. Leaving, I pull the door shut, wishing I had the time to clean up and get some of this dust off me. As we load up the trucks it strikes me how quiet it is, even up here in midtown. The streets are mostly deserted, almost no cabs anywhere, which is unheard of in this town. Even the few people I notice walking down the street aren’t saying anything. The city has gotten the wind knocked out of it. It seems all of Manhattan, usually a bustling metropolis, is a virtual ghost town. The silence is disturbing and unsettling at once. We race back to the site and set everything up. The volunteers are terrific and very much needed. The chief appreciates the effort, as he finally has a place to sit down and rest while formulating his next round of orders. I also give him a detailed weather report I found at the front desk of the hotel. Things are all clear for now, as we agree it is vital that the weather stays calm and clear for as long as possible.

I excuse myself and make a quick jaunt down a few streets on the northeast side of the site, camera in hand. I’ve got to snap off a few shots and record at least a small fraction of what things are like, before it gets dark. After taking about 30 haphazard shots, it’s time to get back to work. Now I need to find someone from the Port Authority to help me with that hazmat report and maybe some blueprints. Off I go wandering again, not knowing where to go, where to start. I stop more people than I can count, asking if they know where anyone from the Port Authority is located.

As I’m walking at a fast pace down West Street, I take note that it is now dusk and the light on this terrible day has passed. It is a long night. Sometime just before dawn, I decide to go back to my hotel and shower. My skin is crawling. I know that I must take about 20-30 minutes and flush my eyes, as the burning is getting worse. I greatly value my eyesight. My throat is raw, as if I swallowed a handful of dry straw. I walk for a very long way before catching a ride to my hotel. The hotel security director later tells me I looked like Casper, the Friendly Ghost. I am covered head to toe in white dust and soot. Receiving strange stares in the lobby, I head up to my room to “decon.” I turn the facecloths, towels and tub a disgusting shade of dark brown while trying to clean this film off me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so filthy.

Looking down at my chest and arms, I notice several areas where strange-looking red rashes have formed, probably from the irritants in the air, I’m thinking. Only I don’t remember scratching at all, anywhere. Strange. I remember standing there with my head resting against the shower wall, trying to sort out the day’s events and all that I had seen and felt. My mind decides it is better to just push everything to the rear and keep moving forward. It is simply too much to process right now.

I step out onto the tile floor and the realization that I have no clean clothes, not even a toothbrush. The scratching cough I’ve had all day persists. I’m not sure what to do first, gargle with mouthwash or begin flushing my eyes. I take care of my eyes first, then as I’m reaching for the mouthwash the hotel provides, I start coughing up bright-red blood. I think nothing of it, quickly passing it off to throat irritation. When I finish cleaning up at the hotel that first night, I put on the same nasty, contaminated clothes and head back down to the command post. I am gone only about two hours.

DAY 2. The sun rises on the second day and it is almost as hectic as the first. So much is happening, with everyone working at a feverish pace. The site has now been dubbed “Ground Zero” by the media. It seems fitting, since the term harkens to the origin of a nuclear detonation and this certainly looks like one.

We all know, without saying a word, that time is running out for anyone trapped in the rubble. The largest fires are being brought under control. The formation of multiple rescue teams continues in order to probe in and around what becomes commonly known as “the pile,” the large debris field where the twin towers once stood. The estimated number of civilians lost is declining, now at around 5,000. Oddly, though, the number of missing firefighters is rising, to about 280 today.

Security around the site is getting much tighter. The National Guard has been brought in to establish a security perimeter. We are hearing reports of looting and even of one guy who said he was with FEMA, slipped past police and went down to the site, stealing personal effects from bodies lying in the street the first day. Marvelous. (Later, we were advised of a new threat – reportedly, three suicide bombers made it past security on foot and were targeting the command post. We also were told of a terrorist cell stealing a fire truck, loading it with explosives and driving it past a checkpoint, “so be on the lookout.” Another rumor surfaces about a truck filled with explosives that the state police intercepted trying to cross the George Washington Bridge into the city. Thankfully, these rumors were unfounded, but they still kept us on edge.)

Military helicopters constantly circle overhead, while jet fighters continue to patrol from a higher altitude. At least they won’t be attacking anymore from the air, I’m thinking. I spend most of the day trying to track down any blueprints that can be found on the complex. No one seems to know where a surviving set might be and it becomes more frustrating. The crews probing the sub-levels are trying to search a site 16 acres in size, under extremely difficult conditions. Some can find no access to these areas because stairwells are blocked by debris. We could really use those prints about now.

Out of the blue, my phone rings. Cell phone service must be back up. It is a supervisor from the General Services Administration, who was given my cell number by the incident commander. He has a nearly complete set of drawings of most of the complex, except for the twin towers and sub-level shopping concourse. Finally, something goes right! He is at the Federal Building, about 10 blocks from where I am. Asked if he can get them to the command post, I am told no, as he has no security clearance to the site. I tell him, “Neither do I, technically,” but agree to go to him. He states they are in “lockdown,” so he’ll meet me in the lobby and will escort me up to his floor. I tell him I’ll be there in 20 minutes.

Working my way back through a checkpoint, I am challenged by a National Guardsman for ID. I tell him I have none with me, but have been at the site for two days and am working with the fire department. He then explains that I need a clearance badge. I’m directed to a nearby building where the police department has set up its command post. I go there, only to find out that they haven’t started making any badges, so I am told to use my driver’s license until an ID process is established. My license is back at the hotel in my briefcase (I don’t carry a wallet). I go back to the checkpoint and advise the guard, who in turn, tells me I need an ID or cannot pass back through.

Just as a spirited discussion breaks out, once again, someone comes to my rescue. A guy wearing an FBI jacket overhears the conversation about why I have to get to the Federal Building and steps in, whips out his badge and vouches for me. Instant credibility! The next thing you know, he becomes my escort and fast friend. For the rest of my time spent at the disaster, he gets me anywhere I need to go – or he feels I should go. I mean anywhere. The Federal Building, the Jacob Javits Center (temporary home of FEMA), police and FBI command posts, the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management headquarters, the mayor and governor’s command posts, you name it. He quickly acquires for me all the magical badges and IDs necessary to get around. His name is Mike (last name withheld for security reasons) and he is the real-life version of Superman. He’ll probably never forgive me for saying this, but I’m not kidding. He is a liaison officer to the FBI on loan from the NYPD, a select group called the Joint Task Force on Terrorism. In addition to being a detective, he is a paramedic and search and rescue expert, one of the best in the world. He is a member of both FEMA and New York Task Force 1 (NYTF1), an elite squad of police and fire urban search and rescue specialists. He has responded to, dealt with and investigated just about every major disaster affecting U.S. interests in the last 10 years. Everything from the two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, to the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the recent Puerto Rico hurricane. Now here he is, doing his thing again on his home turf. (He later investigated the anthrax incidents in New York, as well as the Queens airplane crash late last year – he was even the first officer to handle the Tom Brokaw letter.) This man is unbelievable. He does it all and is extremely intelligent. Not the guy you want chasing you if you’re a terrorist.

My new pal, Mike, gets me over to the Federal Building, where we choose the prints that are useful to us and head back to the site. He takes me to the newly established NYTF1 tent on Chambers and introduces me to all the guys, including one named Steve Spall. Steve is another search and rescue guru with the FDNY and knows Mike through the task force. You can tell quickly by the way he acts and speaks that he is an ace too, clearly “knowing his stuff.” Soon, we are advised that a few people have called 911 dispatch centers and reported themselves to be trapped in various places in the rubble. One woman claims she is trapped in a clothing store in the mall called Strawberry, another says she is in Duane Reade, a pharmacy. They couldn’t offer any details as to where they were in relation to nearby streets, so we are left to our own means in determining their location. The fact that the sub-grade mall is the largest shopping center in Manhattan, totaling 200 shops and restaurants, makes our task that much more difficult.

We break out the prints and start highlighting all the key features with markers, as we openly discuss how and where access can be made to the concourse. We find street-level airshafts and subway station entrances surrounding “the pile” and banter on the feasibility of each as access points. Steve and Mike come up with some terrific ideas and we plot a course of action to propose to command. After we finish, we split up, determined that if there are people down there needing to be rescued, then it was going to happen. I head over to the far side of the site to scout secondary entry points, sketch some things, then make my way to the command post. After the effort appears to be in full swing, I focus my attention on putting together important notes for the announced 10 o’clock briefing at the OEM command post, a converted elementary school at West and Chambers.

At the NYTF1 tent, I brush off the ever-present dust from a large trunk and plop down to begin compiling some key construction facts my office sent me on the twin towers, in addition to the hazmat list I promised Chief Haring. Word spreads that a rescue was accomplished, further raising hope that there are still live victims in the rubble. Everyone picks it up another notch with renewed vigor. Several hours later, I gather my notes and walk over to the OEM post a half-block away. Bustling activity surrounds the school’s cafeteria, where top-level personnel from all the agencies involved with the initiative are gathering to discuss how this incident is going to be managed.

I am introduced to Jeff Armstrong, the overall scene commander. Everyone, including the fire and police departments, even the feds, report to him. I end up working with Jeff quite a bit over the next week and a half and become highly impressed with his abilities and leadership skills. This is a guy who can handle pressure. Plus, he’s a really nice person, with his ego very much in check. Jeff states it’s time to start the meeting, grabs a bullhorn and brings the conversations to a halt.

The session begins. There is electricity in the room. The latest report on the rescue effort is reviewed, along with fatality and injury statistics. Multiple generators hum away outside in the courtyard. We are still without most essential services, but at least we have light and phones, thanks to the quick work of the phone company. By now, cables lay in the street in every direction as far as the eye can see. We expect to have temporary power within a few days.

After the most critical issues have been addressed, Chief Fellini introduces me to the audience. I feel a bit uneasy taking center stage, fumbling with all my charts and statistics, not really feeling like I fit in. During the briefing, I note how much material went into building the towers – over a million tons of steel, glass and concrete. This gives the superintendents of the debris removal an idea of what it will take to remove it from the collapse site.

I then propose my estimate of the types and quantities of hazardous materials that were present before the collapse and what may be in the smoke, in the way of fire byproducts. It is not very reassuring. I stress again that this is a major hazmat event, although clearly stipulating that I am not a hazmat expert. I explain that everyone working at the site may have been exposed to some serious chemicals and carcinogens. Decontamination will become an issue, as no one’s clothes can be deemed safe. I also bring up the topic of synergy. Puzzled faces stare back at me, wondering where I’m heading. I explain that when certain known hazardous materials, with their associated properties, are mixed together, new compounds can be formed, and no one knows the hazards or their effects on humans. I state that I am certain this has taken place, but I do not know to what extent.

There are looks of great concern from most of the audience. The topic then changes to search and rescue. I display an illustration of the core area of the towers. My suggestion is that at least 80% of the victims, dead or alive, will be found in and around the areas where the stairwells and elevator shafts once stood. I figure most of the rescue workers and civilians had to be off the floors at the time of collapse and moving up or down the stairs and in elevators. They are now probably somewhere at and below grade level, as the towers go down six stories below the street. The core being better shelter than an open floor offers us the best opportunity to come up with “live hits.” I also suggest that the highest probability of success for rescues will be found in the sub-grade concourse level beneath the plaza, between the towers, specifically in the food court area. There have to be void spaces there, and food and water are present, which should sustain life for at least several days. Victim dehydration is a big concern. If fresh air is present, of course, there’s at least a chance.

Although a grim task lies ahead, resources are precious and it is agreed they must be used wisely and effectively. Searches must be concentrated on the highest areas of potential survivability. My notes and drawings are done on large sheets of poster board and held up for the audience by a team member. It is crude, but it succeeds in getting the main points across.

Everyone seems to be clutching a bottle of water, as it is warm and everyone is working at a feverish pace. The faces staring back at me display tremendous determination and grit. People from all occupations and backgrounds are working together as one cohesive unit. A team. We have been attacked, yet no one is faltering.

Jeff takes over again and the briefing concludes with the agreement we all meet back here in six hours. I head over to the tent to see what the guys are up to. As I’m approaching the entrance, a police officer suddenly walks up to me and advises that they have just received a message that several fellow police officers are reported to be alive, but trapped in the rubble. It was reported at the scene itself by a nurse in uniform. She stated that she talked to her husband, a police officer, and was told that he and several fellow officers were trapped at a specific location. This report, though, is a hoax, and the woman ends up being unstable. What a waste of time and resources! The question arises whether the other reports are legitimate, although they must be acted on until proven false.

The scene remains a flurry of activity. The pressure and adrenaline remain high. The sounds of helicopters, construction equipment and portable generators fill the air. The night wears on, seemingly endless. After traveling between the command post and the NYTF1 tent for hours, fatigue is beginning to overtake me. The last sleep I had was two days ago and as activity away from the site slows approaching 3 o’clock, I can feel the adrenaline subsiding. After a brief conversation with Chief Haring, who is still working like a machine, I walk back through the security checkpoint to the dimly lit tent. The search crews who were there earlier have gone to the site. The two guys manning the tent are exhausted and trying to catch a quick nap. They too have been working long hours and it shows.

It is relatively quiet, even the radio has minimal activity, so I sit in a chair to flush my eyes again. The constant burning is annoying. I tilt my head, my eyes clamped shut, letting the cool liquid work its short-lived magic. The urge to rest is overwhelming, so I lean forward and put my head in my hands, letting my thoughts wander, taking me back through the past two days. A single light bulb behind the desk begins shorting, blinking off for a few moments, then back on again, over and over while the generators hum away outside the tent, in perfect cadence. One hour until the next briefing. No time to stop now, so back to work. I need to study those drawings some more. The night slowly turns into dawn and we have been blessed with excellent weather.

DAY 3. A new day unfolds on this tragedy, another day of hope. Everyone seems upbeat that we will pull another victim from the rubble alive, yet we all realize time is running out. Spirits slip when we are told the rescue made yesterday was of a rescue worker who had fallen into a void space, so nothing after day one. At the tent, now designated as Special Operations Command (SOC) HQ, I meet another search and rescue specialist from the FDNY, Bob Athanas. Terrific guy. Extremely talented and knowledgeable, just like Steve and Mike. We talk about the effort and our rapidly diminishing chances of success. Still no live hits.

The estimate for missing firefighters is now up to 300 and rising. Damn! Why is it going up? Steve Spall walks in and joins the conversation. He enlightens us that in Kobe, Japan, a baby was rescued after 13 days in the remains of a building brought down by the earthquake. We agree to use that as our benchmark. As Steve leaves the tent and heads back to “the pile,” he pauses to say, “We’ve gotta have a miracle here!” Then he strides on in silent confidence … and in defiance of it all. I envy him for his resilience and his courage to believe in miracles.

A volunteer steps in and hands out more water and sandwiches. Your choice again today, ham and cheese or cheese and ham. I go with the former and begin inhaling my first “meal” in 12 hours, washing it down with a bottle of water as I walk over to the OEM command post for another briefing. Suddenly, it occurs to me that I should make an effort to get back to the hotel for another shower, as the filthy clothes I’ve been wearing for the third day are getting to me – and probably those around me. I’ve since managed to contact my office and asked one of my guys to drive up to D.C., pick up my bags and bring them up to New York. The airlines are still shut down, and there is no word as to when they’ll start flying again. The New York Stock Exchange, another one of our clients, is closed as well and the losses are mounting.

After the briefing, I head back to the hotel. I make my way through security and walk toward Canal Street. Knowing how hard it is going to be to get back to midtown, I begin dragging just a bit in my gait. Then, I hear a fire truck coming down the street toward me, heading north as well. I step into the street and flag them down. They stop as I take note that the truck looks even worse than I do, covered in white, chalky dust. It is obvious this rig was close to the scene when the towers came down, yet other than being dirty, appears unscathed. The two guys up front agree to give me a lift.

I open the door to the jumpseat and climb in, almost tripping over a pair of shoes lying there in front of me. As I pull the door shut and the rig eases into motion, I notice other personal gear around me and judging by the condition of everything, it is obvious that it does not belong to the men up front. It’s all covered in thick dust. Then it hits me while we’re riding down Sixth Avenue that the guys who responded on this piece must not have survived, or they would have pulled their stuff off the rig by now, especially their shoes. Looking down at them, I remembered walking into the firehouse of two former colleagues of mine who were killed on the job and seeing their shoes lying on the floor of the apparatus bay. The boys headed out on what appeared to be a nothing call (“short in the panel box”) and never coming back, killed in a truss roof collapse within 15 minutes of leaving the station by a fire raging over their heads above two false ceilings. Here I am looking at those same shoes again, kicked off before a final run. My heart sinks for these brave souls and their families. A truck probably returning from the crew’s last alarm.

A strange feeling overtakes me as heavy, choking dust swirls through the cab with the wind, covering me with even more white powder. There is a slight sensation of riding in a “ghost” fire truck. As the engine winds its way through the streets, I stick my head out the side window for some clean air, watching the crowds on the sidewalks. Suddenly, one by one, they stop, cheering and clapping as we pass. It grows like an ocean wave, throngs of people on both sides of the street yelling and cheering at us. The guys up front solemnly wave their thanks and I feel compelled to do so as well to acknowledge them. I feel incredibly awkward as I raise my hand in thanks too, because these people are cheering heroes and I am not one of them. The heroes are the guys up front – and the men who wore the shoes I am standing next to. Men who will not be seeing their loved ones ever again. Men who laid down their lives doing what they do best, protecting the very same people who cheer us on from curbside. They are the heroes.

A feeling of reverence washes over me and for the first time since I arrived, the emotion of the event creeps up on me. I quickly fight off the thoughts and focus on matters at hand. The crowds cheer us on, block after block, until the truck pulls over and lets me off on 52nd street. I dismount and thank the men for the lift. I feel compelled to ask them the status of the engine’s crew, but decide not to. It is too obvious, I think, and I don’t want to hear the answer. Too many good men are missing. These are probably just a few of many heroes. Maybe they survived and are at a local hospital, I hope.

I quickly walk the next block to the hotel and am met in the lobby by Jimmy, a bellhop. Jimmy’s a great guy and he sees my state of attire. I am once again covered in dust, head to toe. He offers to give me a spare waiter’s uniform. I quickly accept. It’s dressy, but at least it’s clean. He brings a pair of black slacks and two white shirts up to my room, along with a pair of socks. I thank him profusely and head in the direction of a hot shower.

After getting out of the shower and putting on the fresh clothes, I actually begin feeling good about going back down to the site and possibly helping to get someone out alive before time runs out. I quickly switch on the TV to get an updated weather report and see for the first time the video of the planes striking the towers. I stand there awestruck, not really believing what I am seeing, yet knowing it is all too real. It did happen. The towers collapse before my eyes, captured on tape for a worldwide audience. A few moments that will replayed a thousand times over during the next few days. I watch it two or three times before jumping back into work mode and switching over to the Weather Channel. Great, a storm is heading our way, with heavy rain and high winds tonight.

I kill the TV and dart back out the door. The local police precinct once again rises to the occasion and gives me a lift in a patrol car down to the site. As we approach the scene on West Street, hundreds of people lining the street clap and hold up signs saying “Thank You” and “We Support You,” offering us sandwiches and water as we reach the security checkpoint. This is also reminiscent of Frank and Johnnie’s funeral back in Chesapeake, with the outpouring of public sentiment and support in our time of need. Letting us all know that they appreciate our efforts and that our losses will not go unnoticed – and hopefully not forgotten.

It leaves me with a warm feeling inside as I make my way over to Chief Haring to give him the updated news on the weather. He’s still going strong. His kindly manner exudes confidence in those around him and he welcomes me with a warm smile. He fills me in on the latest and I head over to the SOC tent, as darkness slowly envelopes the site. I run into Mike, Bob and Steve, ideas swarming around in their heads, spilling out into their speech. Mike remembers a model of the Trade Center’s sub-level, made up for the 1993 bombing trial. It’s been in storage in a New Jersey warehouse and he orders it brought to the tent. Soon, a truck pulls up and backs into the staging area. Meanwhile, the National Guard pitches in and rapidly builds a large table to set the model on. The sounds of saws and hammers fill the air.

As we talk about the arrival and assignments of USAR teams from throughout the country arriving in the city to help out, the scene’s activity continues at an energized pace. An hour later, the truck’s hydraulic lift gently lowers the finely crafted model to the waiting arms of a dozen guardsmen, all under the watchful eye of Mike. The costly model is then transferred over to one of the tents and on to the newly constructed perch.

Everyone in the SOC and NYPD tents gathers around, staring intently at our new “three-dimensional blueprint.” Steve and Bob come up with some great suggestions on access problems, with Mike adding an innovative idea based on expected conditions at these levels. The stability of the “slurry wall” (the perimeter barrier wall encircling the base of the complex) is discussed, since reports are coming in of major flooding on Level B-6, the lowest level. With river water apparently pouring in from compromised PATH tunnels used by New Jersey commuter trains, tension mounts as we discuss the effects of the water on the foundation walls. If the walls were to fail or even shift, it could destabilize “the pile” and greatly endanger the rescue workers operating above and just below street level. Also raised is the issue of the effect of all the heavy construction machinery moving around directly above the walls as water pours into open spaces below.

Communication of this newly discovered danger is quickly relayed to the fire department, police department and OEM command posts. Steve heads off for another probe into the sub-levels, while Mike and I head down to walk around the site for an up-to-date visual assessment. Bob stays at the tent, formulating solutions to problems almost as fast as they can be raised. At the command post, Chief Tom Richardson is right on top of things, conversing with various engineers about the water’s threat, as well as possible dewatering solutions.

Just when I think things can’t get any more tense, the storm front moves in. The wind begins to whip up, with gusts exceeding 30 mph, stirring settled dust back into a Maelstrom. Chief Fellini expresses concern over the broken window panes dangling precariously from tall buildings on all four sides of the site and the danger they present to the workers below. He had already assigned a contingent of men to clear glass from above, but there was a lot to do. The imminent suspension of activities until the storm passes forces Mike and I to head back to the hotel for some much-needed rest and food. After we make it back to midtown and the refuge of the lobby, the storm hits, unleashing a torrential downpour for several hours. Oddly enough, we are both too pumped to sleep, despite the overwhelming fatigue. Instead of heading straight to bed, we hang out in the lobby restaurant, talking, staring in disbelief as TV monitors portray the attacks over and over, from every conceivable angle. Our senses are continually bombarded by the madness of it all, hammering us to the point where we don’t want to look anymore, yet our eyes unconsciously turn back to the screen with every clip shown. Finally, at around 2 o’clock, we call it a day and part ways until the morning, each looking forward to a hot shower and a few unsettling Zs, as the rain comes down in gusty torrents outside. We agree to meet in the lobby at 7 A.M.

DAY 4. With the rain passing while we slept, Mike and I greet one another in the lobby, already looking forward to getting down to the site. It is sunny again, in the 70s. We eat a quick breakfast and then head back to work. After arriving, we are met with muddy streets and sidewalks where ash, dust and debris once lay, a foot thick in places. I’m still walking around in dress clothes, looking like a waiter and feeling very awkward.

Midway through a busy morning, I receive a cell phone call that my bags have finally caught up with me, due to the efforts of one of my employees. I had asked that Jim also bring with him 30 small 8 1/2-by-11-inch booklets containing all the site plans, USAR grids and “fire department summary sheets” for the surrounding buildings we have pre-planned. Labeled “F.D. Data,” these booklets contain valuable information and are quickly distributed to the OEM, fire and police command posts, in addition to all the FEMA teams. As a backup, Jim includes in his package extra complete pre-plans for the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange, in the event they are targeted as well. I keep these at the hotel, in case they are needed.

After our morning talk with Steve, Bob and the guys at the SOC tent, I head out on my never-ending quest to locate the remaining blueprints we so desperately need, specifically for the twin towers’ sub-levels and concourse area. As I’m leaving the tent, I meet an entourage of federal agents who ask for me by name. I just know I’ve done something wrong and feel a sudden compulsion to place my hands behind my back to be handcuffed, or run like mad. They immediately ease my concerns by stating that they have been assigned to me to provide any assistance I might require in carrying out the tasks I’ve set out to accomplish. They are from the State Department and look like a serious group of people.

After some brief introductions, they let me know they have several vehicles staged and ready to take me anywhere. These are the same folks who provide transportation and added security for the President and other dignitaries when they visit the city. Each wears a dark-blue windbreaker with “State Department” emblazoned across the back in bold yellow letters and, yes, they carry big guns too. For the next six days, they prove to be an invaluable resource, taking me anywhere I need to go.

These folks are very, very good at what they do. They are highly professional, yet friendly and, as it turns out, great to work with. One of them even jokes about my “waiter look” and asks if I am going to be dressed like this the whole time we are working together. About this time, Mike comes to my rescue again, handing me three NYTF1 T-shirts and suggesting I put one on. He says it will help me in getting around the site and through security. My dress attire must be getting to everyone. Since I can’t take it anymore either and with my clothes finally having arrived, I ask the agents for a lift to my hotel. We are off on our first “assignment” together, in one of those big black Suburbans with the tinted windows. After quickly changing into some comfortable, casual duds and new T-shirt, I carefully double-bag all my clothes from day one, shoes included, and hand them to the maid in the hallway to be disposed of, along with a ten-spot. As contaminated as they are, I don’t ever want to wear them again and most certainly would not put them in my washing machine.

Out the door and to the Javits Center. The place has been transformed into one giant “holding pen” for all the FEMA teams. I hook back up with Mike and we walk over to speak with Fred Endrikat, the FEMA honcho and lieutenant of the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Rescue 1. Fred and I know one another, and it is good to see him again – and very good to see him here in New York. He is one of the best in the business in urban search and rescue and is a guy you want on “the big one.” His easygoing demeanor belies his commanding presence and strong spirit. With guys like him, Mike, Steve Spall and Bob Athanas, I know the people that might still be alive below grade are in the best hands possible. Their chances of survival couldn’t be higher with any other group of individuals. They are disaster specialists and are as talented as they come.

Unfortunately, the number of missing firefighters is now up to 320. I express my disappointment to Freddy that we still have not located all the needed blueprints to aid the cause, especially the important ones. Typical of him and in that low-key voice of his, he calmly says, “Curtis, don’t worry, the drawings will show up. We’re going to get through this whole ordeal OK. We can’t let them win and we can’t lose any more men than we already have, so let’s be sure we do this thing by the book. Everyone needs to focus on safety.” I walk over to the planning area with Mike, thinking how fortunate we are to have a man like Freddy here.

The FEMA architectural and engineering guys show us a hot-off-the-press aerial photo of the scene on poster-sized paper. It is quite a sight, seeing for the first time a bird’s-eye view of the devastation. There they are, the walls of the towers laid out across the street in several different directions away from the site, some in 20- to 30-story chunks, still connected. For days, I’ve walked right over some of these sections amid debris and didn’t even know it. You knew from pieces of the walls being imbedded in the sides of nearby buildings that it had not “pancaked” all the way down, as the news footage led you to believe. Here is the final confirmation. We can now finally view the “big picture.” It is an amazing thing to see. They quickly roll an extra copy up for us to bring to the command post.

Mike and I are off again, heading in different directions, promising to meet at the tent around dark. The agents whisk me back down to the site, going around heavy traffic on the West Side Highway. As we approach the first of several checkpoints, we notice the crowds of people lining both sides of the street, signs waving, clapping and cheering as we pass by. The driver taps the siren in thanks and we continue on our way. Everyone feels good about having so much support from the public and it goes a long way in keeping morale up, believe me.

Our activities push the minutes into hours and the day quickly draws to a close. Mike doesn’t make it back to the tent until late, as he’s handling 20 assignments simultaneously. He walks up to me around midnight and with exhaustion on his face says, “I’ve got a few things left to do, then let’s head back to the hotel and get some rest.” This is a guy who pushed himself so hard at Oklahoma City that he passed out in the shower, splitting his head open in the process. You can’t help but wonder if the general population even knows people like Mike exist, always putting duty before himself and probably his family.

After conversing with Jeff (the OEM incident commander) and Chief Richardson one last time, I make my way back to the tent, dragging a bit. Mike strolls in right on cue. After wrapping up a few last details, we leave the scene for the hotel. It is around 1 A.M. and we talk about getting something to eat, our first meal since this morning. Midtown slowly seems to be coming back to life, albeit in a muted form. We meet in the lobby restaurant after getting cleaned up to wolf down a quick meal before calling it a day. We discuss the frustration of not getting any live hits again today and it bothers both of us.

Across the room, a small party is gathered at the bar, apparently ignorant of the tragedy still unfolding only a few miles away. With intermittent pictures and video of the disaster showing on all the TV screens around them and fresh in the minds of all who were touched by the event, the group carries on as if they don’t have a care in the world. One of them, a very large woman, laughs with a loud, thunderous and, I might add, abrasive cackle that cuts right through me. A cigarette dangles precariously from her unsteady fingers. The other hand clutches a drink. You almost feel compelled to walk over and slap every one of them silly. It is obvious they don’t know anyone who was killed or are missing in the attacks and are completely unfazed by the tragedy of it all. Their display of callous indifference and total lack of respect for what has happened disgusts me. Mike and I decide to get up and leave after being unable to tolerate their behavior any longer. It is easily noticeable that the other patrons around them are as peeved as we are, including the bartender, judging by the look on his face. They are oblivious to it all, or simply just don’t give a damn. We shake hands in the elevator lobby and agree to meet at 6:30. Mike says we need to get down there a bit early, as the President is coming to town.

DAY 5. We hit the ground running. This Saturday morning begins as a rainy, dreary day. Mike and I talk about how lucky we had been with the weather overall and wonder how difficult things would be if it were raining every day. We are fortunate indeed, at least in this respect. Mike runs us by the Javits Center, then by the FBI HQ, before heading on down to the site. We arrive just ahead of President Bush. His motorcade slowly ambles by the tent. We are so busy, it is hardly noticed. The entire scene is shut down tight and nobody moves in or out through the checkpoints. It would have been great to hear what he has to say to the troops, but there is just too much to do. We are planning a thorough, top-to-bottom search of a nearby 53-story building across from the site and will be joined by two out-of-state USAR teams with search dogs.

The missing firefighter count rises again, for the fourth straight day. So many personnel responded who were off-duty they could not immediately be accounted for. It is now at a firm head count of 343, almost 100 above the original estimate. You can’t help but let it get to you. I am stunned by the count. It is equivalent to the size of the entire fire department I used to work for. Yet, every time it starts to bother me, Steve is there, picking me up, always being positive. He keeps saying “There’s gotta be a miracle here.” I, in turn, have to believe that there will be.

Mike heads to the NYPD command post and agrees to meet me in the lobby of 1 Liberty Plaza at 11 o’clock. I turn my attention back to the issue of tracking down those missing prints, as the President’s motorcade passes by once again. The scene opens back up and activity returns to its previous pace. Time escapes me, as does the morning. Before I know it, 11 o’clock arrives. I dash over to the building, figuring to be late and instead walk into an empty lobby, not another soul in sight. It is strangely silent. I’ve been in this building so many times. I glance down at my watch. It is 11:10.

Just as I’m beginning to question if the other guys went to the wrong building, Mike strolls in the front entrance, steady talking away on his cell phone. Typically, he’s dealing with a dozen other things at the same time. As he finishes up his conversation, I take out the building’s pre-fire plan and break it down for the team leaders. Within five minutes, the lobby comes alive, filled with members of two police search teams and two USAR teams. We gather around and discuss the operation.

Since this property is one of my clients, I proudly show off the plan. Everyone is briefed on the stairwell configurations, roof and sub-level access issues, locations of hazardous materials, etc. I then hand out a set of floor plans to each team leader, as there is still no power available for the darkened high-rise. I state, with Mike’s concurrence, that the building almost certainly has to have been searched at least once by now, (although it could not be confirmed) and that it would be wise to leave the dogs in the lobby unless they’re needed. This is a tall and very large building (two million square feet) and the poor dogs are already exhausted from numerous searches.

Suddenly, the chief engineer walks in and tells us that he can get the generator going, giving us basic life safety stuff and one elevator. Having broken down the search patterns to “low” and “high” zone teams, eliminating the long climb to the top for the “high” team is greatly appreciated. Mike and I stay in the lobby, as a command post. The search begins. Mike is on the radio to another USAR search effort on the other side of the site, at the World Financial Center.

As he advises them that our pre-plans are in place for their use, I wander over to a clothing store on the west side of the first floor. The place is a mess, several windows missing, countless suits ruined, everything coated with dust from the collapse across the street. After taking care of another call, Mike sticks his head in and advises me that the store was used as a temporary morgue on Sept. 11, one of several in the area. Numerous people who jumped or were killed in the street by falling debris or even bodies from above were brought here. Standing there, alone, I wonder what it must have been like in here that tumultuous day. It had an unearthly feel to it. Dark, dusty and so quiet. It felt like death. I turned and walked out, not wanting to ponder anymore the horror that took place just four days ago in this once-thriving enterprise.

Just as I made it back into the lobby, the radios crackle, “Evacuate! Evacuate!” Within seconds, guys pour into the lobby and out the front doors. I run up to Mike to determine what’s happening, when he says “Let’s go!” We both make a dash for the exit, along with everyone else, as thoughts race through my mind. Is a nearby building getting ready to fall on us? Have they found a bomb? Are we under attack again? I didn’t know I could run this fast, yet I barely keep up with the other guys. Thoughts of the last building collapsing Tuesday, still fresh in my memory, put me on edge.

Once we reach the street corner and slow to a trot, I turn to the guys and ask what was up with the urgent order to evacuate. I’m told that the building is coming down. I immediately state aloud that the building is perfectly sound and can’t be collapsing. I’ve looked the property over several times from day one and it was evident to me that other than missing a bunch of windows, the structural integrity was unquestionably secure. After quickly convincing everyone that we were in no danger, we restarted our heart rhythms and returned to the lobby to complete our assignment. It turns out that a police officer heard a creak and felt a shift on the floor he was searching, so he ordered the evacuation. I could understand his concern. Having been in the building many times, it does, indeed, move slightly in a stiff wind. It is designed to do so and it does even creak noticeably, but it is as solid as a rock structurally.

We soon complete the search, only to find out by a call to Larry (the owner representative) that it had been searched previously by the FDNY and National Guard. All the effort and stress for nothing. Oh well, a little excitement to add to the day, I suppose. I spend a few minutes petting the dogs before leaving with Mike to go back to the tent. Until now, I never fully realized how valuable these animals are. They certainly have my heartfelt appreciation for their talent and hard work from this point on. They are just as courageous as the rescue workers.

Mike discusses with me his ideas on the scene’s progress. The constant ballet of debris removal and construction equipment activity continues all around us. We pick up where we left off with the guys at the SOC tent, being told that despite several more probes into the pile below grade, there have still been no live hits. Before we know it, the day concludes with the last meeting of the night at the OEM post, reviewing the latest accomplishments of all the agencies involved. It is 2 A.M. and we leave the site for the hotel.

DAY 6. A bright, clear Sunday starts off with Mike and I arriving at the tent about 8 A.M. We are updated about the search teams’ findings from the night before. A subway train is still unaccounted for. We wonder aloud whether the occupants made it out alive, but the search continues nonetheless. The missing firefighter count remains the same as yesterday, finally stopping its ascent.

Mid-morning, my cell phone rings. It is a Port Authority employee and he has something for me – a full set of blueprints for the twin towers’ sub-levels! Finally! I ask where he is, write down the exact address, and tell him not to move and that federal agents are on the way to pick them up. I dash outside the tent and over to the agents. I give the address in New Jersey, with precise directions and they’re off. I advise the fire department and OEM command posts that the drawings will be at the site soon. In less than 45 minutes they return, prints in hand. We rush them into the tent and break them out on a table.

As they are unrolled, it is evident that they will be too complex and difficult to read for them to be of much use to the crews venturing below grade. An idea pops into my mind and I step out of the tent. Pulling out my phone, I call my vice president at his home in Virginia and tell him I need some people up here right away. Within an hour, three are on the way. Two are ex-fighter pilots and know how to work under pressure. By the end of the day, Jay, Bob and Chris arrive at the hotel, software in hand. I advise the OEM incident commander that we need office space and computers. Shortly after my request, my phone rings again. It is the owner of a local architectural firm, offering us use of their facilities first thing tomorrow morning. Finally, things are starting to come together.

As I walk down to West Street, a man approaches me at the check point. He’s a civilian, claiming he has the most high-tech camera and listening device equipment in the world. He says he works for a defense contractor and has been stuck two blocks away with his gear for two days, unable to get through to the right people. I escort him through the checkpoint and over to the ID area. After getting his credentials taken care of, we walk over to the tent and I introduce him to the guys. They advise the incident commander of this latest resource and right away he is put to work, along with his “toys.” Night closes in. Before I realize it, midnight passes. It’s back to the hotel for some rest. I check in with my people and we agree to meet in the lobby, bright and early.

DAY 7. At 7 A.M., Mike, Bob, Chris, Jay and I greet each other. Introductions are made and Mike is off to a meeting. The agents arrive to take me to the site and my people to their new “home away from home” for the next few days, drawings in hand. They jump right into the fray and pump out floor plans in rapid fashion. They work in a building only a few blocks away from the scene, with windows overlooking the site on the 41st floor. They can’t believe what they see – or don’t see anymore. Like the acidic haze which fills the air in lower Manhattan, the sight continually attacks the senses.

The color-coded graphics take about four hours to do per floor. They are combination floor plans and USAR grids, displaying all the support columns on each level. They are assigned eight floor plans to do, the Plaza and Concourse Levels and all sub-grade floors, B1 through B6. When the call comes, the agents rush me over to pick them up and it’s off to a printer in midtown, where 50 copies of each are duplicated in color. Several sets are then dropped off at the Javits Center for the USAR teams, with the rest brought back downtown for the fire, police, OEM and SOC command posts. Three floors are produced the first day. They call it a night 14 hours after they began. Mike and I stay at the site late again, finishing up around 2 o’clock.

DAY 8. The weather continues to hold and things go just as they did the day before. Running around, floor plans getting pumped out, everyone working hard. Still no rescues or signs of life. Admittedly, it starts to wear on me. I feel my energy draining away. The adrenaline is beginning to fade, as common sense tells me we are clearly edging into a recovery operation. Other than three more floors being completed by my people, I remember very little of this day.

DAY 9. Another busy day and the last two floor plans are completed. The agents once again are instrumental in getting them to the command posts. Walking around the site, I am astonished that there have been no fatalities since the first day. A constantly high level of activity has encompassed the area. Monstrous cranes and heavy earthmoving equipment backing up, pulling away debris from the remains of buildings, along with lighter-grade machinery dashing back and forth should have dictated at least a few serious mishaps. However, good fortune abounds, along with a lot of attention to safety by everyone involved.

With fatigue taking its toll, it is surprising no lives have been lost, especially considering the additional risk of unstable window panes and even steel structural members hanging off the facades of surrounding buildings. The ironworkers who walk up to the site and volunteer their expertise, along with all the other skilled laborers who have been coming from the first day on, have proven invaluable. Along with everyone else, they are risking their lives performing highly dangerous work. Their collective contribution has not gone unnoticed and is proving an inspiration to us all.

Coming back up West Street, I pass another contingent of FDNY firefighters returning from a 12-hour shift on “the pile.” Fatigue shows on their faces. The remains of an entire engine company have been found in one area of where a stairwell once stood and I hear the chief calling for multiple body bags over a radio as they walk by. I feel for them and what they must be going through. I am both honored and humbled to even be in the presence of men of this caliber.

DAY 10. I face my last day of work at the site. The remaining two floor plans will be completed today. Hope is clearly diminishing and I am getting depressed. The adrenaline is gone. Harsh reality has taken over. Even though it hasn’t been spoken, we have eased from a rescue into a recovery operation, although it is still officially labeled a “rescue effort.” I am exhausted and must get back to my job and the responsibilities that go with owning a business. Although I feel like I am disappointing the guys I worked with so closely during these most trying of times, life must go on.

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